Unhappy Days for America

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Julie Blackmon
‘Baby Toss,’ 2009; photograph by Julie Blackmon from her book Homegrown. It includes an introduction by Billy Collins and an interview with Reese Witherspoon, and is published by Radius Books.

Robert Putnam made the leap from the academic prominence he had already achieved to something much broader in 1995 with an article in the Journal of Democracy called “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” Whenever an article in a small publication causes the kind of sensation that “Bowling Alone” did—it generated a great deal of enthusiasm in government and in the foundation world—it says something about the intellectual climate of the moment when it was published. Putnam’s main point was that community life outside government and business—the proliferation of voluntary organizations that observers since Tocqueville have noted as a special feature of American culture—had severely eroded. He presented this apparent decline in “social capital” as alarming, and his argument had a powerful effect on people who had grown up in a world of Parent-Teacher Associations, Veterans of Foreign Wars posts, and bowling leagues, and who now lived in circumstances where such institutions didn’t seem to exist.1

Bill Clinton was a few years into the project of restoring the Democratic Party to national power, after a period in which the Republicans had won five of six presidential elections. He had done this by moving the party to the ideological center, but he had just suffered a terrible defeat in the 1994 elections at the hands of Newt Gingrich and his allies. There was a sense of fragility around the liberal recovery. Putnam’s emphasis on social capital and civil society offered a way of expressing the Democrats’ customary concern for improving the lives of ordinary people without venturing into the perilous territory of calling for new government programs, like the failed Clinton health care initiative, which conservatives would find it easy to caricature. Gingrich’s favorite characterization of what he was against was “the liberal welfare state”—but calling for the restoration of bowling leagues and other such associations seemed immune to being affixed with that deadly label. For liberal foundations, barred by the tax code from overtly participating in politics, the idea that stopping the deterioration of social capital might be the main focus of the liberal project offered a legal way of funding a grand, benign transformation of American society.

Two years ago, Putnam published a moving article, consistent with the vision of “Bowling Alone,” about the coming of severe economic and social inequality to his hometown, Port Clinton, Ohio, which sits on the shore of Lake Erie midway between Toledo and Cleveland.2 Putnam was born in 1941. When he was growing up, he wrote, Port Clinton had been a relatively classless place in which everyone knew everyone else and almost all his friends lived in two-parent households. People in his generation overwhelmingly wound up rising higher on the economic and social ladder than their parents.

But today in Port Clinton, the well-off live in their own newly constructed neighborhood apart from the rest of the community. They still have stable families and institutions, but in the blue-collar, and sub-blue-collar, parts of town, incomes are stagnant or declining, the rates of drug use and crime have risen alarmingly, divorce and out-of-wedlock childbirth are at what would once have been unimaginably high levels, and the routine expectation of upward mobility seems like a distant memory.

Our Kids is a book-length treatment of this enormous set of changes, which have occurred throughout American life. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous report called “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” and the forty-ninth anniversary of another, even more important though less well-known government report, “Equality of Educational Opportunity,” by the sociologist James S. Coleman. Continuously since then, chronicling and analyzing American society’s transition to the post-industrial, post–civil rights age has been the main ongoing task of American social science, attracting the energetic attention of, among many others, Daniel Bell, William Julius Wilson, Christopher Jencks, Sara McLanahan, and Isabel Sawhill. The consensus that has developed over the years is that inequality of income and wealth has increased dramatically; that the demise of the traditional two-parent family structure is even more pronounced, but more related to class and less to race, than Moynihan imagined it to be; that for the two thirds of the population without a college degree, overall income growth has ended; and that the men in this last group have even worse prospects than the women.

Nobody who follows this research professionally will be surprised by anything in Putnam’s new book. Readers of Charles Murray’s 2012 book Coming Apart, also aimed at a nonexpert audience, will be familiar with the idea that the prosperous, educated business and professional classes tend to live geographically apart from the rest of the country, and to have unusually stable family, religious, and economic lives, while the working class lives with high rates of crime, substance abuse, insecure employment, and family dissolution.

But Putnam brings special abilities to the subject. His prominence has given him access to copious resources. Murray’s book was based mainly on other people’s published research and his largely suppositional evocations of two places he called Belmont and Fishtown. Putnam, who thanks thirteen “generous supporters” (mostly major foundations), six members of “the administrative side of our operations,” and dozens of field researchers, experts, colleagues, and local observers, was able to send interviewers to look firsthand at life in nine widely scattered sites in addition to Port Clinton. In Our Kids each of a series of chapters combines a summary of quantitative research findings with vivid ethnographic accounts of the lives of actual people, though, in accordance with social science rules, Putnam doesn’t give us their real names (indeed, he tells us, in most cases he doesn’t know their real names). And Putnam writes clear, impassioned, accessible prose that brings two generations’ worth of academic findings into range for people who don’t study these subjects for a living.

Social scientists are supposed to be every bit as ruthlessly objective as natural scientists, but it’s part of Putnam’s appeal that, while it’s obviously important to him to follow the data rigorously, he has a powerful sentimental attachment to the vanished world of his youth in Port Clinton. There’s no mistaking that he sees it as exemplifying a better society than the one we inhabit now. Not many prominent academics would find the milieu of, say, the old TV show Happy Days—which was set, in order to comfort 1970s America, in the 1950s Midwest—as deeply satisfying as Putnam does. He is drawn to such particular former aspects of community life as the cultural centrality of the football team, the innocence about sex and drugs, and the prevalence of moms who were more devoted to raising their children than to advancing their careers.

Another deeply felt conviction of Putnam’s, which has run through nearly all his work, is that social capital—your network of memberships and personal relationships—is more important than money. Although he takes pains to present Our Kids as a book about inequality, there is almost no point of intersection between his treatment of the subject and that of last year’s sensationally popular Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty. Piketty’s primary focus was on the very richest people, and on the possibility that they will soon be able to accumulate enough wealth to live without working, like feudal lords. The prosperous class that interests Putnam is the entire upper portion of American society—those with at least a college degree. What differentiates them, for him, is their obsessive work ethic, their intense focus on their children’s development, their good health, and their rich combination of associations. Money helps them achieve this, but it certainly isn’t the point of these people’s lives, or the main object of Putnam’s study. As he puts it, “this is a book without upper-class villains.”

In 1931, a popular historian named James Truslow Adams published a one-volume history of the United States called The Epic of America. In the epilogue he coined the term “the American dream,” which he defined as

a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

This dream, he wrote, “has been realized more fully in actual life here than anywhere else, though very imperfectly even among ourselves.” Like many non-Marxist liberals during the first half of the twentieth century, Adams was heavily influenced by Frederick Jackson Turner’s idea that in the nineteenth century, the open frontier had been the main mechanism for enlarging opportunity, and that, with the closing of the frontier, the challenge for American society was to come up with a substitute. Adams was not very concerned with economic disparities: in the worst period of the Great Depression, he wrote, “I am not here concerned with the longer economic problems raised by the relations of world distribution and consumption under mass production.”

Adams’s friend Allan Nevins reported that Little, Brown had rejected Adams’s suggestion that the book be titled The American Dream, fearing that it would depress sales. But today, though Adams himself is forgotten, it’s impossible to get through a presidential campaign—or, it sometimes seems, any political campaign—without hearing repeated references to the American dream. It’s a universally popular formulation, and one that can be shaped to a wide variety of uses depending on who’s invoking it. Putnam uses it as the basic framing device for his book; his central concern, he writes, is that “social mobility…seems poised to plunge in the years ahead, shattering the American Dream.”

Putnam has conducted a survey of the seventy-five members of his high school graduating class he could track down—half of the total. He found that three quarters of his classmates wound up getting more education than their parents, and half the children of parents without a high school degree finished high school and went on to college. But their children, on average, didn’t advance beyond their parents at all, in education or income. Average incomes in Port Clinton stopped rising a long time ago, and are now actually falling. The number of one-parent households has doubled. The divorce rate has quintupled. The percentage of births out of wedlock went from 9 in 1978 to 40 in 1990. Just in the last fifteen years the child poverty rate quadrupled, to 40 percent. The generally happy experience of Putnam’s generation would be likely only to come to people born into relative affluence, and would be highly unlikely for people born into families that are not well-off.

More than a hundred years ago, Frederick Jackson Turner proposed that state universities could replace the frontier as the means of offering opportunity to all Americans. Today most discussions of inequality and opportunity still focus on education as the best way to prevent, or even to reverse, class divisions. (This is why, for example, American philanthropists today are so intensely focused on funding charter schools—it’s the expectation that they can create economic opportunities for their students that they otherwise wouldn’t have.) One problem with this idea, appealing as it is, is that one of the most consistent findings in education research is that students’ performance in school is far more closely correlated with what kind of home they come from—parental income, education, marital status, how they make use of time, and so on—than with anything that goes on in their school. That isn’t to say that schools can’t make a contribution to equal opportunity, but it has to be understood as commanding only a limited territory. Putnam, recognizing this, hopes that strengthening social capital outside of school can do some of the opportunity-enhancing work that seems to be beyond the reach of schools.

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Tony Ray-Jones
Daytona, Florida, May 1965; photograph by Tony Ray-Jones from his book American Colour 1962–1965. It includes an essay by Liz Jobey and is published by MACK.

Putnam divides the country into three roughly equal classes, by level of education rather than income: high school degree or less, some college but no degree, college or more. In his top third, both the data and the interviews conducted by his associate Jennifer Silva leave the impression that the differences in children’s home lives have increased much faster than any changes, for better or worse, in their schools, and that divergences in family resources generate additional divergences in school resources. The affluent parents in Our Kids are far more likely to be married, to have more education themselves, to go to church, and to have extensive social networks that they can call upon when their children need extra help. They practice a kind of super-intense encouragement that the sociologist Annette Lareau calls “concerted cultivation.”

They exert their influence on their children’s education directly as well as indirectly, by being actively involved at school, by contributing to the foundations that are now associated with many affluent public schools, by paying for tutors, and by arranging their lives around their children’s copious extracurricular activities, like sports and student government, many of which now charge significant fees to participants. (It’s hard to believe if you live in the big cities on the coasts, but well-to-do American parents still overwhelmingly send their children to public school; they have been able to turn their schools into what Putnam calls “public privates.”) Putnam is the last person you’d find joining the chorus of mockery of upper-middle-class “helicopter parenting.” The tone he uses in describing such parenting is deeply admiring.

“We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee” was the opening line of Merle Haggard’s 1969 silent-majority anthem, “Okie from Muskogee.” In those days most people thought of drugs, sexual liberation, divorce, and secularism as cultural habits of the educated middle class. On the other side of the cultural divide from “Okie from Muskogee” there was, to choose one of many possible examples, Joni Mitchell’s “My Old Man,” released in 1970, which proclaimed that in her romance, there was no need for the constraint of marriage: “We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall keeping us tied and true.” Songs aren’t data, of course, but these lyrics at least expressed attitudes, and to some extent behaviors, prevalent in two very different corners of American society. Today the situation is precisely reversed: educated liberals are more likely to be married, and blue-collar men in the red states are more likely to use drugs.

In Putnam’s less-educated lower third, far more children live in a home with only one parent, and have experienced a traumatic event like divorce, addiction, witnessing violence, or a parent’s incarceration. Parents are short of time as well as money, so they have fewer hours of direct contact with their children than parents in the upper third. During the time they have to spend, they emphasize discipline and safety more than enrichment. They don’t often have extensive social networks beyond family and immediate neighborhood. Their schools are short of money, and they don’t have the extra resources that better-off parents can pour into their schools.

Children in the lower third are much less likely to play sports or to go to church. The one surest thing you can do in the United States today, if you’re young, to improve your life chances over the long term is get a college degree. The college degree’s income premium over a high school degree was 50 percent in 1980, and it’s 95 percent today. In the bottom third, most people either don’t finish high school, get a high school equivalency certificate (GED), or go on to community college, all of which are associated with very low rates of college completion. Only 12 percent of students entering community college wind up getting a bachelor’s degree.

In 1959, at the height of the golden age when Robert Putnam was in high school in Port Clinton, the sociologists Seymour Martin Lipset and Reinhard Bendix published a book called Social Mobility in Industrial Society, which argued, counterintuitively, that the unusually high degree of mobility implied in the idea of the American Dream may have been a widely held perception, but it didn’t actually describe the nature of our society. Mobility up and down the class structure between generations was no higher in the United States than in supposedly class-bound Europe.

In 1963, the sociologists Peter Blau and Otis Dudley Duncan were able to persuade the Census Bureau to conduct a large quantitative survey of mobility, the results of which they published a few years later in a book called The American Occupational Structure. Their view of American society’s distinctiveness was somewhat, but only somewhat, more sanguine: “There is a grain of truth in the Horatio Alger myth,” they wrote. (They were referring to the late-nineteenth-century novelist who churned out best-selling fables about plucky, penniless lads who pick themselves up by their bootstraps.) Still, they found a high correlation between fathers’ and sons’ status—in those days, studies of social mobility were mostly about men only. What intergenerational movement there was usually covered short distances on the socioeconomic scale. People from blue-collar backgrounds were especially unlikely to be upwardly mobile.

Blau and Duncan found that American mobility was mainly associated with overall, “structural” economic changes that carried groups of people up or down en masse, like the depopulation of the agrarian countryside and an increase in the number of white-collar jobs, rather than with substantial numbers of Americans individually moving up and down the socioeconomic ladder every generation in a way that would make it impossible for rigid classes to form. A long-running study strikingly similar to Putnam’s of his high school classmates, but much larger and more rigorous—the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, initially of ten thousand members of the high school class of 1957 in that state, and mainly managed over the decades by a student of Duncan’s, Robert Hauser—supports the idea that, even for those of Putnam’s generation, Americans didn’t typically travel far from their origins unless they belonged to a category that was generally rising because of social and economic changes.

In Our Kids, Putnam acknowledges that he is aware that years of studies show that

relative mobility accounts for only a small portion of total mobility experienced by individuals across generations, whereas absolute (or structural) mobility accounts for most of it.

When he was growing up in Port Clinton, the United States, victorious in World War II and relatively undamaged by it, was much less susceptible to international competition than it is now, and it was able to confer the blessings of its growing economy widely across the population through a redistributive tax system, high unionization, large-scale expansion of higher education, and a regulatory system that gave safe harbor to many moderately sized regional businesses. Those conditions are gone now. They were so propitious for absolute mobility that it felt as if the American Dream was functioning at full capacity, even if there wasn’t much relative mobility—i.e., movement upward relative to other people in the same position. Instead, nearly everybody was moving up together.

But Putnam is convinced that today relative mobility, as well as absolute mobility, is declining alarmingly—that most Americans are more firmly destined to remain where they started out than they were when he was young. His passion about the need to change this situation overwhelms his social scientist’s epistemological caution. The data simply don’t support his conviction: “But—and this ‘but’ is crucial for this book—conventional indicators of social mobility are invariably three or four decades out of date.” Therefore, he insists, the evidence he presents in Our Kids “will foreshadow changes in social mobility.” In other words, Putnam has to resort to predicting that a major finding undergirding much of his argument, a decline in relative mobility, will appear some time in the unspecified future, because such a change hasn’t occured in the present. It’s a sign of how sure he is that the lack of proof doesn’t deter him from making the assertion.

If Putnam were more focused on absolute mobility, which was the real engine of the American Dream for his generation, then he might have spent more time exploring economic policy generally or ways of recreating the widely distributed economic growth that so much helped Americans his age. Though he does acknowledge its importance, he largely ignores most of the specific ideas that come up in discussions of how to remedy inequality—like making tax rates more progressive (think of Piketty), or aggressively using monetary policy to tighten labor markets (think of Janet Yellen at the Federal Reserve), or raising the minimum wage, or more tightly regulating financial companies. Instead he is most intensely focused on increasing opportunity for individuals, and he believes the primary way to do that is by increasing their locally available store of social capital—through improved ways of rearing children, and encouraging activities and associations that will increase their chances in life.

In proposing remedies, Putnam makes the appropriate bow to the importance of economic policy, but he devotes most of his attention to ideas that he sees as having the potential to increase social capital, like parental leave and mentoring programs. His voice comes alive when he’s discussing these ideas; it becomes flat and dutiful when he discusses the economy. The specific injustice that moves Putnam to the greatest height of outrage is “pay-to-play,” the policy of charging fees to student athletes, which effectively denies poorer kids access to school sports teams and therefore, in Putnam’s view, to a crucial source of social capital. He calls extracurricular activities “as close to a magic bullet as we are ever like to find in the real world of social, and educational, and economic policy,” and then adds:

So if you are concerned about the issues discussed in this book, here is something you could do right now. Close this book, visit your school superintendent—better yet, take a friend with you—and ask if your district has a pay-to-play policy. Explain that waivers aren’t worth the paper they’re written on, because they force students to wear a virtual yellow star, saying “I’m so poor my parents can’t afford the regular fee.”

One could choose to see comparing school districts with pay-to-play policies to Nazis as a sign of admirable commitment to righting the wrongs Putnam has described, but in that case the solution ought to be grand enough to justify the moral certainty of the rhetoric. It’s not clear that this one does, and in general the claims Putnam makes for the all-importance of social capital run far ahead of the evidence he produces to support them. Deep within a long and likely to be little read “methods appendix” at the end of the book, Putnam tells us that the survey he conducted of his high school classmates showed that the surest way of producing socioeconomic mobility was through educational attainment—especially attainment strong enough to lead to college graduation.

By the logic of the book, access to social capital ought to be strongly associated with going to college and doing well there—otherwise, why stress it so strongly? The syllogism would be: social capital leads to educational attainment, which leads to mobility. But for his classmates, Putnam reports, academic achievement was the factor most predictive of college attendance, and the link between such achievement and parental encouragement (of the kind he has copiously praised in the main body of the book) was only “modestly important,” and “much weaker” than the link between class rank and college attendance. Not only that:

No other measure of parental affluence or family structure or neighborhood social capital (or indeed anything else we had measured)—none of the factors that this book has shown are so important in producing today’s opportunity gap—had any appreciable effect on college attendance or other educational attainment.

In the methods appendix, Putnam refers readers to his website for more detail on his findings about his classmates. There, he writes:

No measure of parental resources adds any predictive power whatsoever—not parental occupational status, not parental unemployment, not family economic insecurity during high school, not homeownership, not neighborhood characteristics, and not family structure…. Parental education, parental encouragement, and class rank were all modestly predictive of extracurricular participation, but holding constant those variables, extracurricular participation itself was unrelated to college-going.

So is it really the case that Putnam has shown that strong social capital once produced individual opportunity—let alone that the deterioration of social capital has produced what he calls the opportunity gap? The passages I just quoted seem to indicate that the strong association between social capital and opportunity that is Putnam’s core assertion has not been proven. Putnam doesn’t define “social capital” precisely enough to rigorously test its effects, even on as small and unrepresentative a sample as the one in his survey, and he doesn’t attempt to test its effects precisely in the present. It could even be that, rather than social capital generating prosperity, prosperity might generate social capital, which would mean Putnam has been showing us the effects of inequality, not the causes.

Putnam has made a real contribution in calling our attention to a situation of profoundly divergent experiences for different classes that Americans ought to find morally unacceptable, as he obviously does. It’s especially useful that he offers so much detail about the social aspects of inequality, which haven’t had the broad discussion they deserve. But many of his readers will conclude from his argument that the heart of the problem is a decline in individual (not overall) mobility from a previously high level, and that the heart of the solution is to shore up the social capital in less well-off communities. Both propositions are overstated, and by making them so insistently Putnam risks using the attention he commands to narrow the discussion about what to do now to a set of possibilities that are far too limited for a problem this big.

  1. 1

    I was skeptical of “Bowling Alone”; see my “Kicking in Groups,” The Atlantic Monthly, April 1996. 

  2. 2

    “Crumbling American Dreams,” The New York Times, August 3, 2013.